Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lost Parents

I love the movie The Lost Boys.  It may be a little campy and a tad predictable, but it’s still a great movie.  It has a great style, amazing soundtrack, vampires who are real vampires although they look like 80’s rock stars, humor to play off the horror aspects (which are really rather mild), and did I mention the awesome 80’s hair?  But what I like the most about this movie is the focus on the family.

Yeah, a horror movie about teenage vampires has themes of familial love and actual grown up characters that play a role in the story.  The teenage MC has a brother and mother and even a grandpa who all play a role in the storyline, and somehow the movie still works.   Seems to me that YA paranormal romances and urban fantasy with the disturbing lack of parents could learn a thing or two from the movie Lost Boys.

The Missing Parent Syndrome in YA

I’ve read a lot of YA mostly urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and dystopia, and there are so few decent parents in any of the books.  In Hush, Hush, Nora’s mother leaves her alone in an old farm house for weeks at a time while she’s on business trips.  In Hunger Games, Katniss’ mother had a nervous breakdown after the father died and was pretty much useless.  In City of Bones, Clary’s mother gets kidnapped.  In Everneath, Nikki’s dad is running for mayor and doesn’t seem to have any time for his daughter who disappeared for six months other than making sure she takes drug tests and works at a soup kitchen for PR reasons.  And while Charlie in Twilight was at least a fully formed character, he’s not going to win father of the year with all the times he ditches Bella to go fishing on his days off.  I have seriously tried to think of one story that had good parents, and the only one I could think of was Matched by Ally Condie.

 As a parent, I find this disturbing.  As a writer, I see this as a missed opportunity.  Why not include concerned, meddling parents?  They can bring more tension or complicate the plot.  If the MC told their parents about their new discovery of vampires, werewolves, or fairies, the parent is most likely going to think the MC is crazy or on drugs, so it is believable that the MC wouldn’t tell them, and even if they did, the parents could not believe them or even make things worse.  Why not have the parents ground the MC on the night their supposed to save the world because of all the sneaking around they’ve been doing lately?  I think a caring, involved parent could play an interesting role in the story.  At least it is worth considering.

Have you seen me?
Lost, a caring, loving parent in YA literature
Excuses for not including Parents in YA

There are a lot of reasons not to include parents in YA.  But to me it all boils down to wanting the characters to have more autonomy, which is funny to me because this could easily be solved by moving the characters to college age, but for some reason no one wants to read about college-aged protagonists, so instead there are these high school protagonists living and behaving like college students.  I think if you have a protagonist in high school their lives should reflect someone in high school, and that includes those pesky parents. 

Here are some common excuses to keep the parents out of the story.

Teenager MC needs to be the one to solve the problem.  Sure the MC needs to solve the problem.  I guess the idea is that if there are diligent, caring parents around that they will solve all their kids’ problems for them.  I wish that was true.  My oldest is only seven, and I can already see that there are some problems I can’t fix for her.  I’m sure that I will become more and more powerless as she gets older.  I think that is how we grow up.  And I know the more serious life-threatening things would warrant parental involvement, but that would only happen if the MC actually told the parent.

When I was a teenager I hardly ever told my parents about what was going on in my life, and I think  most teenagers are like that.  I’m sure there are exceptions and some teenagers who tell their parents everything.  I hope my kids are like that, but it seems very realistic to me that teenaged character would keep things from their parents.  If the situation involves a supernatural element, the teen would be even more unlikely to confide in their parents for fear their parents wouldn’t believe them.

And if the MC is in a life and death situation there are a lot of adults they could go to:  teachers, police, friend’s parents, aunts and uncles, etc.  So making the parents unavailable does not force the MC to solve the problem on their own.  There has to be another logical reason for the teenaged characters to not go to any adults.

My point is that there are a lot of ways to force the teenage characters to solve the problem even if they have good, attentive parents.  And it might be more interesting and complicate the plot to have the characters have to sneak around their parents to save the world or hook up with their dangerous, supernatural boyfriend.

Parents aren’t important to the story.  Sometimes the parents aren’t important to the story, and while it is true that you shouldn’t include or spend much time on characters that aren’t directly related to the plot, having well-developed and believable parents adds depth and realism to the story.  If you have a character in high school, who is still living with their parents (or parent), it is unrealistic not to have the character interact or at least think about their.   Parents also play a pretty significant role in who a person becomes, and I always appreciate the added depth when an author takes the time to develop the parent, and shows me hints of the MC’s childhood and where the character came from.  So I think even if the parents doesn’t play a direct role in the plot, they still impact the story.  And showing the parent-child relationship is important.

Some parents are not good parents.  Yes, some parents aren’t very involved in their kids’ life.  They could have demanding jobs or be a little self-centered or even neglectful.  All of these happen in the real world.  And honestly, I don’t have a problem with having inattentive parents.  This can be done very well.  In Holly Black’s White Cat, the main character Cassel comes from a family of con artists and mobsters.  His mother is in prison for running a scam.  She is absent and also a bad parent.  This is integrated perfectly into Cassel’s character (explains why he is the way he is) and feeds into the plot.  It is believable, and actually pretty brilliant.  And Katniss would not have the survival skills she needed if her mother hadn’t broken down out after her father died and forced Katniss to provide for the family, Katniss would never have had the survival skills to win the hunger games.  So having a bad parent can definitely work for the story.

But a lot of times I see evidence of a neglectful parent, like in Hush, Hush, but I don’t see how the mother’s lack of parenting impacts the character.  If the only reason for bad parenting is to get rid of the parent, that is lazy writing.  If you want to have a neglectful parent, make sure you show the repercussions of it.

Parenting in The Lost Boys

I know this is an older movie, and I’m not sure if everyone has seen this movie, so I’ll try not to spoil it.  If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you do even if you’re not a fan of horror.  Honestly, I don’t think it is that scary although it is a bit gory at times.  It is actually pretty funny.

It also is very similar to YA.  It’s about a mother who moves her two sons (both teenagers) across the country to live with her father after her divorce.  The whole story is centered around the oldest brother, Michael, trying to fit in with a new dangerous gang and impress the hot chick that hangs out with them.  Of course they all turn out to be vampires and are trying to turn Michael into a vampire as well.    These vampires are really living the teenage fantasy.  No parents, no rules, dress like rock stars and drive expensive motorcycles. They “sleep all day, party all night, never grow old. Never die” (tag line from the movie).  I liked these vampires in that they definitely had bite, no angst just party animals that kill without any remorse. 

What keeps Michael from being seduced into the vampire way of life is his strong bonds with his family.  He has his brother Sam who he has as close of a relationship with as you’d expect two teenage boys to have.  Sam kind of tags along and takes cheap shots at Michael, but it is clear that they look after each other.   

Micheal’s mother is kind of an ex-hippie type, very sweet, very loving, but not great with discipline.  She is genuinely concerned about the change in Michael’s behavior and actively tries to connect with him.  She's a real character, not a cardboard excuse for the boys to be left alone.  They’re teenagers; it’s normal for them be on their own at times.  But the Mother isn’t absent.  She is there, and she is trying.  We see that in the movie.

There is also a grandpa who is less involved.  He is a great character, a taxidermist who is used to living alone, a bit of a recluse.  The boys steal his car and try to get rid of him when the vampires are coming after them.  For the most part he is a realistic obstacle for them to get around rather than someone to go to when they need help.

I don’t want to give away the ending, so I’ll stop here.   But while the plot revolves around the brothers, the mother and grandpa both play a significant part in the story, and I think the movie is stronger because of this.  

If absent parents play a significant part in your plot line, then, by all means, get rid of them, but make sure their absence is felt.  However, if it doesn’t, consider keeping the parents around.  Try work them into the story or have them complicate the MC’s life a little.  I think it might be worth a little effort to find those lost parents.



  1. I am sick of the absentee parents in most YA fiction. However, there are a few good books out there that made the parental unit work in their favor. The Wrinkle in Time series uses parents and family as a central theme. Parents are very present (although not really great) in The Giver. (Family continues to be a theme in Gathering Blue and Messenger, the follow up books.) Nick's mom in Infinity by Sherrilyn Kenyon is a driving force in his life. I don't know why more YA doesn't follow in this path, but I am with you: they should. Thanks for the post! (Can you believe I've never seen Lost Boys? I'll have to fix that. It sounds great!)

    1. I forgot about A Wrinkle in Time. It's been forever since I read it. I haven't read the others you suggest. I'll have to add them to my list.

      I can't believe you haven't seen The Lost Boys. Go see it now once your kids are in bed. As a horror movie I think it is pretty tame, but it is pretty gory.

  2. I agree parents shouldn't be absent in YA fiction. What better way to give the character a backstory then his/her family. I might be wrong because I haven't researched it, but it seems parents get more and more absent as the decades progress. In the 80's when I was a child, TV shows and movies had parents as characters. These out of touch parents actually helped their children at times. The 80's teenage movies such as Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, 16 Candles the parents were part of the storyline. In more recent time, the reality show Lagoona Beach, never had parents in it. The high school seniors went on cooed over night ski trip with no parents. It would never have happened in my house growing up. I think it is interesting to add more depth to a story by even giving the parents a backstory. Teenagers may not believe it but where we come from influences who are more then who are friends are. Oh before I forgot, I really liked Lost Boys and prefer those vampires to the current ones.

    1. Maybe you are on to something, and the fact that many teens don't believe their parents influence them contributes to the lack of parents in YA novels and shows. Maybe it is a teenage fantasy to have bad parents. I don't know. I still think parents are a great opportunity for great conflict.

      I love the vampires in The Lost Boys. They acted like a pack of wolves in some ways. They definitely were separate from society, and that felt believable to me. I don't think David could be the dangerous, bad boy love interest that we see today following a human girl around high school. He was pretty much irredeemable, but that is why he was so awesome. Of course Kiefer Sutherland is just an amazing actor.

  3. I agree that sometimes the absentee parents work, but you're right, more often than not it's just a convenient way to not have to include them. I think Rachel Vincent's Soul Screamers series does a decent job incorporating a parental figure while still making the main character the one who needs to do everything. Her father was absent for a large part of her life, but he came back in the first book and has been involved in her life (both when she wants and doesn't want him to be) since then. Their dynamic is actually one of the best in the series, in my opinion.

    New follower!

    1. I haven't read Soul Screamers yet. I'll definitely have to read that one; it sounds interesting.

      Thanks for commenting and following. :)

  4. It's times like this that I read and realize that my novel is a walking cliche. I turn my face to the wall and start banging.

    Oh well.

    I think every story has its own needs. What would Harry Potter be like if his parents survived. Very short. The Dursleys' could, possibly, have been more supportive, or more human, but there's a reason for that too. It creates sympathy for Harry.

    All I can do is write the story that is streaming through my mind. And when you know better, you do better.

    Thanks, MaryAnn. Great post!

    1. Sheena,

      Stop banging your head against the wall. There is nothing wrong with missing parents if it is integral to the plot. Harry Potter had to be an orphan, and so does your MC.

      It is only when the missing parents have nothing to do with the plot that I get annoyed. :)


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.